A parent’s love for their child is eternal, and every parent’s worst nightmare is losing that child at some point. While no parent should have to suffer that tragic fate, it happens all too often. Compounding that sad reality is that suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 24 years old. For survivors, the days, weeks, months, and even years following such a tragedy can feel like complete isolation as they spiral into a dark abyss that’s both unexpected and undeserved.
The truth, however, is that:
- nearly 45,000 people commit suicide annually in the US alone
- another 1.3 million attempting suicide but surviving
- nearly 10 million people having thoughts of suicide
No parent of a child who has committed suicide is alone.
Complexities of Modern Life
While smartphones and technology have improved the way we live and work and enhanced our ability to keep tabs on our children, there is a sinister side that prevents us from actually protecting them. Through enhanced access to guns, pills, and information — about sex, violence, and each other — innocence is lost long before the average young person is mature enough to handle the realities of life. Even those parents who don’t allow access to this type of technology at an early age can’t always control what kids learn from their friends, or how the access to information might impact them. From cyberbullying to untreated mental illness to physical, sexual, emotional, or substance abuse, the causes of suicide among teens and young adults run the gamut.
Depression, which is considered the number one cause of suicide, can result in or be caused by any of these circumstances. What is not well-known is that those who suffer from addiction are at an extremely elevated risk of suicide. While parents are busy trying to address the dangers of addiction, such as access, high risk behaviors, and the potential for overdose, suicide is often not even on their radar. In fact, the risk of suicide is about six times higher in those who suffer from a substance abuse problem.
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):
- Teen boys are four times more likely to die of suicide than girls, but girls are far more likely to attempt taking their own life.
- Drugs or alcohol are a factor in one out of every three suicides.
- More than half of all male suicides are attempted using a gun, which makes access to a firearm a significant risk factor for them.
- Most female suicides are a result of poisoning using drugs.
With a great deal of gender and cultural fluidity in modern society, it is even more difficult to assess all the possible risk factors by qualitative or quantitative means.
Common Emotional Responses
A child’s suicide can bring about many intense emotions, including shock, guilt, anger, despair, confusion, feelings of rejection, and stigma. The stress responses can be further magnified if the parent witnessed the suicide or discovered their child afterward. Parents often blame themselves, and experience extreme guilt along with the belief that had they known more about what was happening in their child’s life, they may have seen warning signs that could have prevented their death.
Most parents find it especially hard to understand their child’s reason for committing suicide. The fact is that it’s often not a rational choice, and yet the feelings that led them there were overwhelmingly real. For the parent, processing the complex series of emotions known as grief can be extremely difficult without the ability to fully understand why this happened.
In many cases, adding to the difficulty of processing these emotions are religious stigmas that prevent parents from properly grieving their child, or from believing they are in a better place and without pain. Ironically, religious affiliation among families is actually believed to contraindicate the risk of suicide.
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The incredible despair caused by the loss of a child to suicide can lead to depression, hopelessness, substance abuse, or emotional detachment by any member of the family. It is important to watch for suicidal behaviors, and seek treatment for depression if needed. Taking the time to learn about suicide and its warning signs is also important if you fear your other children or spouse might be at risk.
Understandably, suicide takes a large toll on parents and families. The overwhelming emotions this type of loss elicits can lead to long-term depression and emotional detachment, as well as placing blame on the other parent for the child’s decision. It is natural for each parent to handle grief differently, but when one refuses to seek treatment for their own depression or other resulting symptoms (like drug or alcohol abuse as a means of coping), it can often lead to divorce. Divorce rates among bereaved parents are thought to be up to eight times higher than parents who have not lost a child. Incidentally, divorced parents is also considered a risk factor for suicide, especially among teen boys.
It is perfectly natural for you to feel alone in this circumstance. However, grief, stigma, and divorce are all common circumstances shared by parents who have lost a child to suicide. If you no longer have anything in common with the child’s other parent, you may be able to find common ground through the realization that you are inextricably linked by this experience in much the same way that you were linked by the child when they were alive, and neither of you are to blame.
When dealing with the death of a child, it can be very difficult to find closure under any circumstances. Many parents feel like they have to stop living a fulfilling life in order to honor their child and the tragedy that has taken place. Experiencing happiness can add additional guilt when parents feel it is their duty to remain sad. While it is important to embrace the emotions you feel from the loss, it is also important to embrace the emotions of life continuing on. This means finding constructive solutions to help you move forward, and eventually finding peace and experiencing joy again.
Anyone who has experienced a loss can benefit from family or individual therapy. However, when grief overtakes your life to the point that you cannot function normally or are turning to dangerous substances to cope with your loss, therapy is critical to help you address your own depression. Bereavement counselors are specially trained to help you navigate the complex emotions of this type of loss, and many also specialize in addiction treatment.
Finding fellowship through a support group can help remind you that you are not alone and that others share your pain. Being around others who truly understand your loss can provide solace, while hearing the experiences of others can help you process your grief and move past your guilt. Seeing positive transformations in the lives of others who have survived this kind of tragedy can provide hope that you will, too. While religious stigma may turn some away from the idea of faith as a solution, spirituality and looking to a higher power can provide great relief for parents who have lost a child.
Many parents find comfort in spreading awareness and advocating for suicide prevention; if their loss was related to addiction, working to reduce the stigma related to the disease may also provide some peace. This helps keeps their child’s memory alive, and ensures their death was not in vain by helping others avoid the same fate. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) can help parents who wish to get involved by providing volunteering opportunities, forums for speaking publicly about their experience, or even professional counseling services.
Parents should take as long as they need to experience all the emotions the loss of their child has caused. Suppressing your feelings will only delay the ability to find closure and accept life without your loved one. While life will never be the same as it was before your loss, looking to therapy, support from others, and advocacy can help restore meaning and give you purpose again.
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention – Find A Support Group, Suicide Statistics,
- American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy
- Psychology Today – Surviving Suicide: A Mother’s Search for Meaning, Why the Five Stages of Grief Are Wrong, Suicide: One of Addiction’s Hidden Risks
- Huffington Post – Kids Of Divorce And Suicide: New Study Shows Link
- The American Psychiatric Association – Religious Affiliation and Suicide Attempt
- Mayo Clinic – Suicide grief: Healing after a loved one’s suicide
- Centers for Disease Control (CDC) – Suicide Facts
- NCBI – Estimating the rates of deaths by suicide among adults who attempt suicide in the United States.
- The Trevor Project – Facts About Suicide